Monday, June 17, 2024

SAW Work: Meg Lentz and Adam Rosenblatt

As a teacher and advisor at SAW (Seqential Artists Workshop), I've had the pleasure of mentoring a number of talent students. Two of them local to me in Durham are Meg Lentz and Adam Rosenblatt. I'll be reviewing their earliest minis in this column.

Lentz has taken on the alter-ego of Lenny Ditz as their primary character in their frequently surreal autobiographical comics. Lentz pulls no punches when discussing mental health, gender, social justice and other issues, but their primary method of storytelling is humor. Lenny Ditz #1 ("Lenny Ditz Meets Binky Brown") came as the result of an assignment where the students were asked to engage with a comic published prior to 1990. Lentz chose "Binky Brown Meets The Holy Virgin Mary," the ur-memoir comic by Justin Green. It set the stage and immediately raised the stakes for all subsequent memoir comics. It was Graphic Medicine decades before that sub-genre had a name. The story follows young Green and his debilitating Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that zeroed in on his believing that he emitted invisible rays of force from his hands and penis, and he was terrified that it would despoil the image of the Virgin Mary at his local church. 

Lentz opens their story late in college, where their previous perfectionism and compartmentalization that had served them so well for academic success came to a crashing halt, thanks in part to the global pandemic. Using an open-page layout, Lentz slides from sequence to sequence as they were no longer able to work effectively, but the mounting burdens made them feel even worse about their situation and caused their mental health to rapidly deteriorate. It got bad enough that Lentz completely dissociated from their environment, until they were surrounded by "trash, bugs, and mold--a manifestation of their mental state." The mold becomes a running visual motif, talking to Lentz and urging them to kill themselves. Engaging with Green's comic, they at first sense a kindred spirit, but then they are led to the idea of destroying themselves before cleaning house, literally and figuratively. This is no slapped-on happy ending, as the assignment itself was late, yet they perserved and finished it. It's an impressive first effort on a number of levels, but I especially like the sophistication of the visual motif of mold and the almost psychedelic patterns Lentz employed. 

Rosenblatt, an interdisciplinary scholar and professor at Duke, has actually done a couple of minis this year. The first, The Field Full Of Weeds, was included in his year-long collection, A Little Golden Promise Comics Magazine #1. The original story tracks with Rosenblatt's academic interests with regard to reclaiming neglected cemeteries as a form of social justice work, and it introduces his two primary "Disaster Birds" characters: Fairlawn and Nunyoa. The collection puts the stories in roughly chronological order, starting with "Sad Bird Band: Discography." The interesting thing about Rosenblatt's comics is how they organically develop their own character backstories that resonate against each other. This story was for a two-track assignment, where there are two competing narratives that don't directly relate to each other but whose juxtaposition creates a new whole. In this case, we meet Fairlawn and Nunyoa in high school, as they become best friends, as mediated by Nunyoa's obsession with the records of the Sad Bird Band. They are every emo/shoegaze/literary band you can imagine, and the story follows snippets from various years from either Nunyoa or Fairlawn over the phone along with a Pitchfork-style review of a new SBB album and an image of its cover. The story sees the characters go through ups and downs as friends until there's a tragic event that ties them into the band and their very existence. Beyond the clever formal qualities of the story, Rosenblatt's character design and understanding of gesture make the characters come alive. 

"Disaster Memorial" uses two-track in a different way: it narrates Fairlawn (an artist) talking about the experience of creating a memorial for gun violence in a book years after the fact while showing her design the memorial in the past. Rosenblatt avoids a standard grid and uses a floating open-page layout for much of the comic, providing atmosphere for the amorphous passage of time depicted in the story. Rosenblatt is also careful to center image over text, even in a story that is heavily text-based. For example, he makes sure that not only is Fairlawn depicted writing, walking, or drawing, she also interacts with her dog Flotsam. Giving her other things to play off of is key to keeping the reader's interest on the page. The final images are powerful, simple, and effective, as all text fades away with the exception of one crucial word ("Nunyoa"), and even that is deliberately made part of the art--both by the character as part of the memorial and by Rosenblatt in the story itself. 

Finally, "The Field Full Of Weeds" is slightly less focused on the characters and more on Rosenblatt's initial interest, but even here, he plays around with time as he flashes back and forth between Fairlawn trying to find Nunyoa's neglected grave and their past as friends (and their love of the Sad Bird Band) and Fairlawn having trouble listening to them after Nunyoa's death. There's a heartbreaking page where we see Nunyoa's grave, and she's saying (as Fairlawn perhaps imagines it?) that she wishes she could go back to the day depicted in the first flashback, where they are together. There's no easy resolution to the plot here, only a despairing admonition of not losing her twice (which is echoed across to the band). Rosenblatt seemingly has just started tapping a deep narrative well with these two characters, in a way that reminds me of Jaime Hernandez bringing up threads over time with Maggie and her friend Letty, who died in a car accident as a teen. 

There is one more story: "After Camp," and once again Rosenblatt uses a formal trick for a devastating emotional punch. The image is of young Rosenblatt standing with his grandfather, a survivor of the Holocaust. It's clear that it's a drawing of a beloved photograph. The Rosenblatt figure engages in a monologue, only it's his present-day voice, as he talks about visiting the concentration camp his grandfather was held in. Words come pouring out as Rosenblatt tells a bit of his grandfather's story, and there's a profound sense of loss and grief that Rosenblatt plays around with formally (like noting the lettering, or creating a funny shape for a word balloon) before he ends on a sweet grace note. Like all of his stories, nothing is resolved, except an understanding of the need for connection and the pain of loss that makes that connection all the sweeter.

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